How to Make Your Photos Really 'Pop' in iPhoto '11 for Mac

By now, my regular readers realize that I like to expose them to useful apps and features that are free and usually included on just about every Mac. You may be a typical Mac user interested in maximizing your productivity with existing tools and apps. Why spend extra dough for specialty or advanced utilities, when what you may really need is right there in front of you. It’s this way with photo editing apps.

I have been teaching courses in both Adobe Photoshop and iPhoto for several years. As for the powerhouse app, Photoshop, I see many eager students quickly become dispirited due to its many complex aspects. In fact, most students I see taking these courses are mostly interested in “quick-and-dirty” ways to edit and “fix” their digital photos. For these, iPhoto is the ideal editing tool.

By the way, why the quotation marks above? Because, as I tell all of my students, you should never engage in sloppy photography (“sloppytography”) because you know you’ll “Photoshop” it later on the computer. Always strive to get the best shot you can in the camera. That includes exposure, composition, cropping (“zoom with your feet” if you have to), and focus. Don’t rely on what’s known as post-processing to solve image problems.

Cartoon image of a photographer holding camera with one hand

Holding a camera in one hand makes this feller a Sloppytographer

That said, every digital photo can stand a little punch and pop by boosting contrast, or tweaking the saturation, or even pulling out some detail from shadow areas. If necessary, a modicum of exposure repair can be made up to a point for those once-in-a-lifetime shots that suffer from a bit of under or overexposure.

In this article, I will show you how to use the more advanced editing tools built right into iPhoto ’11 for OS X. iPhoto comes on every Mac, and it  actually includes fairly sophisticated tools now, compared to earlier versions.

Next: Image Editing in iPhoto

Part 2 - Image Editing in iPhoto

Let’s jump right into iPhoto image editing.

An illustration of a “No nuclear explosions” sign

Say NO to destructive image editing!

Before continuing, there is a critical aspect of image editing that is very important to all photographers who wish to edit/fix/enhance their images. I am talking about non-destructive editing. This means that you can always restore your image to its original, unedited state. Image editing in iPhoto is indeed non-destructive. All editing is effected on what amounts to a copy of the original.

The important thing to remember is that when you edit a photo in iPhoto, any changes you make are applied to the photo everywhere it appears (for example, when adding it to a project such as a card or photo book). If you wish to edit only one version of a photo and leave other versions unchanged, duplicate the photo before you edit it. You do this by selecting the photo then choose Photos > Duplicate. Make changes to the duplicate.

To get started with editing an image in iPhoto, you need to open it in Edit View, so that the available editing tools appear. These will be dispersed among three editing modes accessible via tabs at the top. First, though, you must select your photo, then click on the Edit button (pencil icon) in the toolbar at the lower-right corner. The Edit Pane will appear on the right side. Everything will be managed from here.

If I were writing a longer piece on the subject, I would cover all of iPhoto editing features in great detail. Count your blessings! It’s far more important to expose you to the more advanced features found under the Adjust Mode, attainable by clicking the the respective tab at the top of the Editing Tools Panel.

The Quick Fixes and the Effects edit panes when in Edit View in iPhoto

The Quick Fixes and the Effects edit panes

As for the other two available editing modes, I’ll just mention a few things about them here. The Quick Fixes Mode provides tools that are - quick and simple. The only really important ones here are the rotate, straighten and crop tools. These are generally applied to an image before any additional editing. You can try the Enhance tool as a starting point for further adjustments later on in the Adjust mode. Enhance will give your image a slight boost in contrast, color saturation and sharpening, but you have none of the all-important granular control available in the manual Adjust mode. 

The Fix Red-Eye tool works moderately well. However, you should adopt certain camera and flash techniques to avoid red-eye in the first place. Forget the red-eye reduction function on cameras; a cheap gimmick at best. The most advisable techniques include the use off-camera flash, diffusers/reflectors or bounce flash. 

The Retouch tool works well on small isolated skin blemishes in a portrait. For more complex image retouching, restoration and repair you need to work on the image in more fully featured image editing apps such as Pixelmator, Acorn or the Adobe Photoshop products.

The second set of editing tools are found in the Effects panel. Go ahead, get it out of your system, and play with these various “filters.” You may find that you really, really like them. However, if you want more of this type of image processing, where you enhance your images with a panoply of filters and special effects, or you like to fiddle with all kinds of black-and-white effects, you really should look into the other apps mentioned previously. You can also explore a number of third-party plugins that work with some of the apps for even more editing and creative processing possibilities.

Next: Using the Adjust Mode

Part 3 - Using the Adjust Mode

OK… it’s time to focus on the real meat-and-potatoes of image editing in iPhoto ’11: the Adjust Mode and the manual adjustment and manipulation of your images.

Once your photo is open in Edit View, click on the Adjust tab at the top of the Edit pane.

A number of manual image adjustment controls will appear. It’s where photo geeks come to play!

The Adjust edit pane when in Edit View in iPhoto

The Adjust edit pane is where the power-editing tools reside

First things first: the Image Histogram and Levels Sliders. These were very welcome additions to iPhoto a couple of versions back. They’re critical tools that give you finer control over tonalities, exposure and contrast in your image. The presence of these tools makes iPhoto a fairly serious image editing app for most photographers. 

For now, just know that a Histogram is a real-time representation of the dark and light tonalities that make up the image being displayed. The Levels sliders allow you to change the distribution of the tonalities in an effort to affect the overall exposure levels of the image. 

I won’t repeat details on how to use the histogram and levels sliders, but please refer to a previous and more in-depth article I wrote here on TMO: How to Use the Image Histogram in iPhoto. 

Referring to the illustration above, notice that the Adjust mode panel is divided into four groups of tools.

Group A: Histogram and Levels 

Use the three Levels sliders under the histogram to adjust your image highlight levels, shadow levels and mid-tone levels. As with all editing tools, don’t overdo it with your adjustments. I live by the “less is more” axiom when it comes to image editing. 

As for the adjustments themselves, only you can tell how much of an adjustment to make in these levels, if any. If an image has good highlight and/or shadow detail, you may need little or no adjustment. Don’t forget the mid-tone level slider.

Group B: Exposure, Contrast and Saturation Controls

When using these three adjustments, any changes you make affect the overall image, rather than letting you fine-tuning tonality regions as you can when using Histogram and Levels. 

Exposure allows you to adjust the photo’s overall lightness and darkness. 

Contrast adjusts the amount of the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of the image. It’s very subjective, but I generally like to boost contrast in most of my images, as they tend to come out of the camera a bit too flat for my taste. A boost in contrast makes my images “pop.”

Saturation adjusts the overall intensity or richness of color in the image. Color can also be reduced or removed completely, but this is not the best way to convert an image to black-and-white. 

The Avoid saturating skin tones checkbox is not to be ignored. For example, if you have a portrait of a nice lady surrounded by colorful flowers, you may want to boost the overall saturation, but not have her face look like it’s been exposed to a nuclear holocaust - unless of course, you don’t like that nice lady too much.

Over-saturated photo of a lady with flowers

Increasing saturation without protecting flesh tones can result
in highly negative reactions from an otherwise nice lady

Group C: Enhancement Controls

The Definition slider improves clarity, reduces haze and adjusts contrast in the mid-tone areas of the image. You should certainly try this one for a nice image pop. 

The Highlights slider tends to define detail better in the lighter areas of the image by reducing brightness.

Conversely, the Shadows slider lightens shadow areas to reveal better detail there. These latter two are often used together, but again, don’t overdo it.

Two before and after photos

The BEFORE and AFTER. Highlights were darkened, shadows lightened, contrast and definition
were bumped up. The result: a less “muddy” image with better definition.

Sharpness increases (or reduces) the “crispness” of areas and details that are in clear focus and of sufficient contrast. 

De-noise will help reduce image “noise” (grain-like artifacts) that generally appears as tiny color blotches in dark areas of the image when shot in low-light and at high ISO speeds. However, heavy-handedness in applying the de-noise tool will soften the image. 

Group D: Color Cast Controls

Use the Temperature slider to set the overall color tone coolness and warmth. 

The Tint slider sets the overall color cast of the image, and actually is used in conjunction with temperature adjustments to attain the correct image white balance.

The Eyedropper tool is used to help you with correcting overall color cast in your image, and can actually be more effective than the temperature and tint sliders in complex or mixed lighting scenarios. 

When you click on the eyedropper, you will see a tooltip explaining that you need to click on a neutral gray or a white point in the image. If there’s an area in a photo that you know should be white or gray, but appears off-color, iPhoto can automatically balance the photo’s overall color. 

Two before and after photos

The BEFORE and AFTER. Fluorescent lighting often produces an Exorcist-Green color cast.
Clicking the eyedropper on neutral gray corrects this

A “neutral gray,” even in a color photo, would be something that would equate to neutral gray in a grayscale image - things like green grass, a medium blue sky or a gray road surface. iPhoto will adjust the colors accordingly with the end result, hopefully, of an image with a color cast removed.

Position the crosshairs over the gray or white area and click. You’ll notice that iPhoto adjusts the temperature and tint sliders to make the area a neutral gray, which should improve the photo’s overall appearance. Incidentally, you may need to perform multiple clicks of the eyedropper around the image until you achieve the result you want in color cast eradication.

That’s it for now. But, before I let you go, let's look at five Power Tips related to image editing in iPhoto.

Next: Five Power Tips

Part 4 - Five Power Tips

Power Tip #1

No matter which image editing app you use, when doing any kind of editing, it’s important to view the image at 100%. You want to be able to see every pixel, even if the image goes beyond the screen’s edges. At 100%, each image pixel equates to a pixel on your screen.

The full iPhoto screen

For best results, this original iPhone 5s image must be shown at 100% before editing

You can quickly zoom out to 100% by pressing the 1 key. Press the 2 key to double the magnification level, and the 0 key to zoom back out so that the image fits the main iPhoto window. Once zoomed in, you can navigate either via the little Navigation floating window that pops up, or hold down the space-bar as you drag the image around to reposition it. The pointer will change into a hand icon while the space-bar is pressed. You can also use your trackpad or Magic Mouse gestures, as you might expect. 

Power Tip #2 

Take advantage of full-screen mode when viewing and editing your images in iPhoto. When it comes to editing those images, you need as much clarity and detail as possible. When running later versions of OS X, use the double-arrow icon at the top-right corner of the iPhoto window to move in and out of full-screen mode.

Power Tip #3 

Your changes are saved automatically, unless you click the Undo or Revert to Original buttons located at the bottom of the Edit pane.

Power Tip #4

You can quickly compare versions of a photo’s before-and-after edits while you’re working on it. After you make changes to a photo, and are still in Edit view, press the Shift key to see how the photo looked before you changed it. When you release the Shift key, the edited photo reappears.

Power Tip #5

There is a certain sequence in which your editing tools need to be applied to an image in order to obtain the best results. This is called your image editing workflow

It’s important that the first editing tools you use, if needed, are the Rotate, Straighten and Crop tools found in the Quick Fixes mode. 

When using the more advanced tools in the Adjust mode, they are laid out more-or-less sequentially, as you would use them from top to bottom. However, if you need to apply the sharpening tool, it’s always best to do this last.

In conclusion, I think you’ll agree that one of the things that makes digital photography so awesome is that the technology empowers you to fine-tune images in ways that, in the world of traditional photography, would require a fully equipped darkroom. That darkroom has now morphed into what we call the digital image editor on our computers and mobile devices.
iPhoto ’11 is a very respectable photo editor even for advanced amateur photo enthusiasts.

And… the price is right!